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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lumberjanes, Creativity, and the Definitions of Flotsam and Jetsam

I was prepared to let this week fly by without a blog post. I'd already reconciled it in my mind. Last week's post was one of the least-clicked on posts I've ever written, I haven't finished any books since the last one, either. A lot of my free time lately has been playing video games and reading comic books.

This whole thing is pretty cyclical. I read a lot, get a good backlog of posts lined up so that I don't have to worry about meeting the self-imposed deadline that absolutely no one else will even begin to hold me accountable for, and I kind of coast. The posts go up, fail to compete with the myriad of other online entertainments on offer, and then they disappear quickly into the flotsam and/or jetsam (note: research whether there's a difference, like with stalactites and stalagmites. Or are they interchangeable, like "odds and ends," or "Olson twins") of internet content. And we all move on with our lives as if nothing happened because essentially nothing did.

By the way, I just looked it up and there is a legally important difference between flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam is debris unintentionally introduced to the water that the original owner still has claim to. Jetsam was deliberately jettisoned, and therefore to the claimant goes the spoils. In other words, if I'm on the high seas and lightning strikes the rad masthead I have of a particularly bosomy octopus, knocking her into the water, that monstrosity still belongs to me. And I'll have you return it promptly, thank you very much. If, on the other hand, it is a desperate situation on the high seas and I feel that said masthead is a liability and consciously shed it to the whims of the sea, someone else is going to be rewarded with the find of a lifetime.

Flotsam and jetsam are basically the opposite definition for the entirety of the internet. Much of the things that delight, disgust, or distract us are unintentionally entered into the public record and immediately become the property of all. The woman who falls down the many, many stairs because she's scrolling through Instagram on her way out of the courthouse would rather that content not make it on the internet. And yet lo, she is briefly the most famous person on earth. The cat who loves playing under a faucet doesn't know there is an internet. She is just a broken cat trying to navigate a world in which there are giants who could destroy her at a whim and has found a distraction from the daily terror of feline life.

On the other hand, those things deliberately introduced to the metaphorical ocean of amusing or infuriating content only gains attention if it is horrible. Like so many underpants floating among the foamy waves, these are the blog posts with 18 followers saying that Star Wars is feminist propaganda, Frozen is actually a poisonous concoction of political correctness and gay brainwashing, and one weirdo saying that drama kids aren't actually bad. We take these gross fringe opinions and inflate them to some kind of commentary on the national state of thought. "Man writes blog defending drama kids, internet destroys him."

Basically 80% of what we do online is tear things down, it's like the opposite of a barn-raising, where instead of gathering to help our neighbor build a building (one that I assume is useful though I'm only vaguely aware of what barns are for aside from giving teenagers in rural communities a place to kiss and do heroin) we get all of our cars together and drag a massive chain across the entire historical downtown shopping district. Like, it's nice that we're all working together on something, but only if you really like rubble.

As a very influential and well-respected opinion haver, influencer, and tastemaker, I understand that I keep some opinions carefully hidden, knowing that if I unleashed them on my social medias, I would lose half of my friends. These aren't the relatively innocuous political platforms like maybe Mussolini had some good ideas. Oh no, these are much more virulent. Like, if people knew that I believe deep down that Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut are writers who only exist in order to be grown out of I would be torn to pieces. When Prince died I couldn't think of a single song of his that I was able to listen to all of the way even once. The book Ready Player One has the worst opening chapter of any professionally published book that I've ever read and I was unable to read even one more word of it. You mad? What if I replaced Ready Player One with Twilight. Is it OK now?

That felt good for me, but probably made everyone angry. Just like I lose my dang mind when I read the Goodreads reviews of books I loved. Why did that feel good to point out that something you love is bad? Why is it so easy to critique, and so hard to create? We spend the entirety of our childhoods thinking about how we would do better than our parents when we have kids and spend the entirety of parenting hoping that we do at least as well as them. We criticize the American school system yet contribute nothing towards making it better. Half of us spent eight years tearing apart Obamacare instead of actually designing something useful. It's like going to the mechanic because your starter is broken and your mechanic flicking a cigarette into your car followed by a gallon of gas. "We'll just build you a new one," he says, the dancing flames reflected in his glasses.

I mean I know the answer to all of these questions and it's this: creating things is hard as balls. Blog posts probably have the lowest barrier to entry of any creative form known to man, and still it's hard. Making stuff out of clay that looks like real stuff? Painting with oil paints? Making movies or learning how to play the guitar and then creating original music for that guitar and THEN writing lyrics to the original music? Seriously it might as well be impossible. And then if you do all of that and you play at your local coffee shop you have to be like embarrassed that you did it. What an a-hole, right? How dare someone create something and then try to share it with people that she cares about.

We all have that friend who learned how to paint and really cares about it and wants to share their art with you and we look at the art and we're like, it's not even good. Do you know where that comes from? I do. It's the part of us that tells us that because we don't do it, it's bad. It's the voice in your head that says my friend had better not succeed at something artistic because then I'd have to admit to myself that pursuing something creative isn't a waste of time. Can you imagine how bad Fall Out Boy's best friend in high school must hate him? Fall Out Boy in this universe is an actual person. And behind every Fall Out Boy is his super petty high school friend who secretly rooted against him at every step.

Here's the thing: we're all bad people. Every one of us who has begrudged someone else's attempt to create is bad. I get mad because I think that Stephen King is a bad writer. Like objectively bad. I hate that he's very successful and I think that's unfair. I am annoyed that Steven Spielberg isn't directing a movie based on my book that I never began to even try to publish. It just burns me right up. I'm angry because I didn't do anything and nobody is praising the work I didn't create.

It doesn't matter to that awful part of me that these works have enriched the lives of many millions of people. What matters is whether they satisfy some version of quality that I alone dictate. The person who is having a great time putting together a Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light puzzle while watching Big Bang Theory and eating Olive Garden seems to be actually having a pretty good time and THAT CANNOT STAND FOR SOME REASON.

Have you read Matt's blog? Yeah. It isn't even good.

Maybe it isn't. There's a really good chance of that. But it exists. I guess that's why I keep writing it. It's why I pay the $12 a year to keep the domain name. It's why I paid off a guy $35 to stop him from suing me for using his picture. I must be in the hole a good hundred bucks by now on this endeavor. I spend time on it that I could spend doing a million other things. It makes me feel bad just as often as it makes me feel good. And yet here I am again angrily hacking away at my ergonomic keyboard.

Here's my last gripe about a society in which earnestness and creating just for its own sake is punished: all of us are taught at an early age that creativity is good. Parents and teachers give us magic markers, crayons, lego blocks, and clay. They thrust ukuleles and recorders into our hands. They send us to piano lessons. I spend a lot of time with kids, many of whom come from dangerous and fractured families, and every one of them wants to color. Every one wants to put blocks on one another. They all want to show me their drawings. They want to make something that never existed before.

Until about 4th grade.

At that age enough people (adults and children alike) have told these kids that they aren't good enough. "A stringed instrument isn't right for your child's temperament," the music teacher tells you in front of them. An art teacher spends all of his time focusing on the three or four students who are "gifted," and "have a knack," while ignoring the kids who don't measure up to their arbitrary standard. "Everyone knows that Fall Out Boy can't sing," a fellow student (rightly) tells Fall Out Boy, who runs outside and cries in like ten pitches at once.

As if by fourth grade any of us know what we will really be good at. And as if it even matters. The number of concert pianists worldwide who make their living solely as pianists (if I ever have a podcast this will be a funny sentence to read aloud) number in the hundreds while there are currently 40 million piano students just in China. Your chances of being a professional football player as a high school student are one in four-thousand. Even if you make it to a college team, it's a 0.004% chance that you will play even one year of professional football. If the chances of making a living with your creative endeavor are so slim, the argument that we should discourage children from doing things that they love just because they aren't good at it goes away.

But what if they waste their lives pursuing a dream that will never come true? Sure. Maybe don't spend every second you have getting good at one thing. Look at Richard Sherman, lockdown cornerback and member of Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom. Guy had a 4.2 GPA in high school and a degree from Stanford. The lead singer of The Offspring is pursuing a doctorate in molecular biology at Keck School of Medicine so that he can cure HIV. Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, is a GD ASTROPHYSICIST. I can't imagine a job candidate being thrown out of the office because, in addition to a degree and experience, they can paint killer landscapes or play the entire Rush discography on drums. That seems like a plus to me. Imagine your office parties.

Play football because you love it. Play piano because it's awesome that you can play piano. I was in a church meeting once where a a teen boy played a very lovely piece on the piano and happened to glance around the room at the many young ladies in attendance. There were not enough fainting couches on hand to deal with the mass swoon. I didn't play sports well as a kid, I played them very poorly. Thankfully, though, my parents let me stay in them as long as I wanted. As a result, when a bunch of middle aged men gather around to throw a ball around and complain about how it hurts, I can hold my own.

I was a creative writing major for several years. At times, teachers told me that I had "it." One teacher told me that if I didn't pursue a writing career, he would consider himself a failure. Spoiler alert: I did not pursue a writing career. I changed majors to conservation ecology. Was my professor a failure? He was not. Here I am, writing. Not because I'm good, but because I like to do it. Is there anything wrong with doing something just because you love it? I submit to you that there is not.

I like to cook, and that's fine because cooking is something we do to, like, survive. But what if we need to create art to survive, too? What if writing a blog is a decent way to combat depression sometimes? What a weird hypothetical situation.

Anyway, all this brings me to Lumberjanes.

In Lumberjanes five young girls of extremely varying personalities and aptitudes meet at a girl scouts camp known as Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqui Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. They represent the Roanoke cabin, and right off the bat they're earning badges and solving mysteries.

It's the kind of series that didn't exist when I was a young kid reading comics. In those books you could have women on the team, but they were never the decision makers. They also all had to wear leotards ten sizes too small and I assume spent most of their fighting energy making sure they didn't have stuff falling out of their costumes so that they were decent enough to not be put on a different shelf in the bookstore.

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Faith Erin Hicks, Brooke A. Allen, Brittney Williams, Aimee Flack, Becca Tobin, Carolyn Nowak, Felicia Choo, T. Zysk, Aubrey Aiese, and Maarta Laiho probably were told their whole lives that they were wasting their time pursuing art and writing. They were certainly told at different points in their careers either explicitly or just by looking at the names of writers and artists in their favorite comics that there wasn't a place for them in the industry. They went ahead and wrote a radical book anyway.

If you like to draw, keep drawing. If you've always thought you'd like to draw but never did, try it. Write every day if writing makes you feel good. Practice the instrument you learned in junior high but never picked up again. Play the ukulele. Sing. Make a band. Start a YouTube channel of you seriously reviewing every Hardy Boys book. Make something out of clay and fire it in your oven. Is it good? Who cares. Did it exist before you made it? Nope. That's something, isn't it?